What Underlies the Long-Running Dispute in the South China Sea?

China claims all South China Sea waters within its self-imposed ‘nine-dash line’, demarcated in a 1947 map, including the Paracel archipelago and the Spratly Islands (Image Source: US Navy)

The South China Sea is a site of intense geostrategic importance located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific. It is the site of decades-old contestation between rival regional powers over territory, lucrative energy resources and economically-vital sea lanes. Given the sea’s location at the centre of the world’s most densely-populated and fastest-growing region, and considering the above-mentioned convergence of interests, the disputes represent a pressing and complex issue which is highly resistant to resolution.

The disputes first emerged in the aftermath of World War Two, when the six claimant states bordering the sea – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – scrambled to occupy islands following the withdrawal of colonial powers. In their early stages, the disputes centred primarily over the question of territorial sovereignty. China claimed almost the entire body of water according to its ‘nine-dash line’ map, originally released publicly in 1947. The map was based on historical claims of naval expeditions in the area dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. China views its claim to sovereignty as a major national interest comparable with its desire to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state.

Taiwan and Vietnam also stake a claim to large portions of the sea encompassing two island groups: the Paracels and the Spratly islands. Similarly, these claims are based on historical records stretching back centuries. Another three Southeast Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – claim more limited portions of the sea and look to assert their right to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from their coastlines. These claims are made in line with the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, while serving as an important modern-day legal referent and a possible future tool of resolution, has been a primary driver of the disputes in recent decades. This was most evident in 2009, when a UNCLOS deadline for new submissions on the delimitation of continental shelves led to a series of claims from nations bordering the sea, adding to an already-complex picture of overlapping claims and leading to a further raising of regional tensions.

While a full-scale military conflict has so-far been avoided, the South China Sea has witnessed a series of past incidents involving the militaries of the six claimant states. Most of these have taken the form of small-scale encounters or non-violent stand-offs involving coastguard ships and fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In May 2014, a more high-profile incident occurred when China stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its EEZ, resulting in a stand-off involving more than 30 vessels. The incident damaged bilateral relations and sparked street protests in Hanoi.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has assertively pressed its claims in the disputed region through land reclamation and conducting maritime patrols (Image Source: Russian Govt.)

The two countries had previously clashed in the sea in a notorious incident at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 64 sailors perished. In more recent years, the US has risked China’s ire by carrying-out ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the contested area, sailing military vessels close to islands occupied by China. This policy was a major aspect of former President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, which many considered a thinly-veiled attempt to counter China’s rising power and support Southeast Asian states in ensuring China met opposition to its activities in the South China Sea. President Trump has taken a softer stance since his shock election win in 2016.

While competing territorial claims over islets, rocks and other land-features have defined the disputes for decades, undersea energy resources have become an increasingly important driver of the disputes in more recent times. The South China Sea is thought to contain up to 213 billion barrels of sub-sea oil in addition to vast quantities of natural gas in rocks deep beneath the waves, leading states to intensify their claims to the region. This is particularly important given the rising populations of the Asia-Pacific in combination with dwindling domestic energy reserves and a need to decrease over-reliance on the volatile Middle East for oil. China’s population is set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020, whilst the population of Southeast Asia is nudging 650 million. Shipping is another important factor, with the South China Sea being a vital transit route for the import of oil and gas, and the export of consumer goods. Up to 90% of energy imports to East Asia pass through the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint and through the South China Sea, after being shipped first through the Indian Ocean. This provides another major imperative for states to seek a degree of control over the waters, to ensure the free-flow of shipping which is necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Analysts in the US have raised concerns that China could block this vital maritime trading route, while China holds the opposite fear that the US and its regional allies could close the Malacca Strait in a future worst-case scenario. Such an event – instigated by any party – would negatively impact all regional nations and dent the global economy.

All attempts to resolve the dispute so-far have failed. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed-up to a joint Declaration of Conduct on the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), agreeing to pursue peaceful co-operation and exercise self-restraint. However, the DOC has long been criticized as being ineffective due to its non-binding nature, while talks between the two sides on a binding code-of-conduct have made little progress over the years. This has been made more difficult due to division within ASEAN over the dispute in recent times. The claimant states – in particular Vietnam and the Philippines – have maintained a tougher stance, while several of the non-claimant states – including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – have been reluctant to criticize China’s activities too forcefully for fear of losing-out on much-needed Chinese investment. During the current impasse, China has expanded its de-facto control over the South China Sea, asserting its claims through land reclamation, building military installations on islets and conducting regular naval patrols.

The United States conducted regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea under President Obama, sailing warships close to disputed islands (Image Source: US Navy)

At present, the disputes have drifted out of international headlines as more immediate concerns have dominated global politics; namely the escalating US-China ‘trade war’, and the North Korea situation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and rising Islamist conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have also held regional attention, forcing the South China Sea issue into the background. The US has largely retreated from Southeast Asia under nationalist President Trump, looking to lessen rather than increase America’s commitments in far-flung parts of the world. Since the final days of the Obama administration, US rhetoric on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea has softened.

The Philippines’ President Duterte – elected several months before Trump’s unlikely rise in the US – has also adopted a softer stance. ASEAN remains divided on the issue and unable to reach consensus. This has left China to press on with its land reclamation programme and solidify its territorial gains in the South China Sea, with Beijing having previously rejected a 2016 tribunal arbitration ruling which questioned the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty. Whether China and ASEAN will be able to adapt to the new status-quo and agree upon a binding code-of-conduct in the coming years remains to be seen. Another unknown concerns a potential change of government in the US once Trump’s first term ends in 2021. The election of an Obama-style leader may see the US strive to re-engage on the issue.

For now, at least, China has solidified its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea. Yet despite apocalyptic predictions from some analysts in the West, the disputes look unlikely to result in conflict. China, the US and ASEAN states all have too much to lose. Irrespective of whether the complex territorial claims can be resolved in the coming decades, economic realities and shared interests mean a co-operative environment regarding the sea’s resources and shipping routes may yet develop. This will be the key test as to whether peace can be sustained in the world’s most hotly-contested waters.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

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The Political Undertones to Cambodia’s Unresolved Border Dispute with Laos

Tensions flared during 2017 after Laotian troops reportedly crossed the border to halt the construction of a road in Stung Treng province (Image Source: Pierre Andre)

Cambodia’s usually low-key dispute over an unmarked stretch of its remote 540-km long border with northern neighbour Laos made international headlines last August, when long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a stern six-day ultimatum for Laotian troops to withdraw from the disputed region or face a forceful military response. Cambodian troops equipped with rocket launchers headed from Phnom Penh toward the contested area but were ordered to turn back the following day after a hastily-arranged meeting between Hun Sen and Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith defused tensions.

Despite a renewed commitment from both sides to work on delineating the precise boundary, the dispute remains unresolved and in late-February – a year after tensions first reignited – the Cambodian military held a live-fire weapons training exercise just south of the contested border. Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the drills were designed to improve the army’s capabilities and allow soldiers to ‘‘get to know the location in order to defend our country and our territorial integrity’’, yet emphasized the drills were ‘‘not a threat to any country’’ and unrelated to the border row with Laos.

Are the recent military exercises a sign that lingering tensions over the border are once again rising to the surface? The answer may have less to do with the dynamics of the dispute, and more to do with the upcoming election season in Cambodia. Despite the border issue remaining unresolved, since the flare-up last August relations between Cambodia and Laos have progressed seemingly unaffected by the near confrontation. Yet the dispute remains conveniently alive in the background to be used as a political tool by Hun Sen, who often looks to fan the flames of nationalism to advance his ‘strongman’ and ‘protector of the nation’ image as crucial elections draw closer. The next is scheduled for 29 July.

Background to the dispute

The dispute over the boundary separating the Laotian provinces of Attapeu and Champassak to the north from the Cambodian provinces of Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng to the south dates back centuries. A large Khmer population was present in modern-day southern Laos during the Angkor empire until its collapse in the mid-14th century, while the northern Lao population migrated further south from the 15th century onward; forming the basis of historical claims to ownership of the border region. The root of the problem today however can be traced to the French colonial era. As a remote inland border far from the coastline and any potential invading force, its precise mapping was not exactly a high priority for the French rulers of Indochina from the late-19th until the mid-20th century.

After the French withdrew in the mid-1950s the boundary remained undefined throughout the next few decades of upheaval, encapsulated by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide. After the remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1998 and a semblance of peace returned, closer attention was paid to the border region. In 2000, a joint bilateral committee was set-up to define the border, and by 2005, the two neighbours announced that around 87% of the boundary had been officially demarcated through the placing of 121 border markers, with only another 24 left to position. Yet due to disagreement over the final unmarked areas the job was never completed and up to 14% of the border remains undefined. Despite tensions occasionally flaring, a peaceful status-quo has prevailed.

Threat of military confrontation in 2017

The relative peace was threatened last year. In early-February 2017 Laotian soldiers crossed into Siem Peng district to prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road over contested territory, and after a succession of similar incidents over the next few months, Cambodian PM Hun Sen issued an ultimatum on 11 August warning an estimated 30 Laotian soldiers to retreat within six days or face a military response. Hun Sen ordered troops to the border province of Stung Treng, stating he had run out of patience with the ‘‘invasion’’, warning ‘‘if a situation happens, please don’t blame Cambodia’’.

A military confrontation appeared imminent in August 2017 after Cambodian PM Hun Sen ordered troops to the disputed border region (Image Source: RC Army)

Yet soon after rocket launchers were seen heading to the area amid the imminent threat of armed clashes breaking-out, the crisis was de-escalated following a rapidly-convened meeting between the Cambodian PM and his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane. After the meeting, which Hun Sen labelled as a ‘‘huge victory’’ for both sides, troops were withdrawn and both leaders promised to re-establish dialogue channels to reduce tensions and work towards delimiting the rest of the border. Hun Sen later lauded his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Laotian PM Thongloun Sisoulith as crucial to resolving the issue, and in September the two nations’ foreign ministries said they would request detailed colonial-era maps from the French government before agreeing on the final geographical limits of the border.

Has the flare-up harmed Cambodia-Laos Relations?

Despite the live-fire drill earlier this year refocusing minds, the dispute has been pushed firmly aside as relations between Cambodia and Laos have flourished apparently undisturbed by the latent border tensions. The two sides have held a series of high-level security meetings, with Cambodian Defence Minster Tea Banh visiting Laotian counterpart Chansmone Chanyalat in mid-January, pledging to forge closer military ties and avoid confrontation along the border. Later that month the interior ministries of both nations took part in a key bilateral security meeting, where they signed a new memorandum of understanding on co-operation and vowed to jointly combat drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. In March, the two countries also signed an agreement with neighbouring Vietnam to enhance tourism and economic ties in the 13 provinces surrounding the tri-border between the three countries.

More recently, on 4 April Laotian PM Sisoulith visited Hun Sen in Siem Reap where both men vowed to bolster co-operation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism. It is clear that both leaders wish to build upon their nations strong historical relationship which has been fostered by close religious, cultural and geographical ties over the centuries. Ensuring good relations is especially important given the central role both countries hope to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which will require the careful management of border tensions but should provide a long-term boost to both nations economies. In this context, it is evident why the dispute has had no discernible effect on bilateral ties, leaving many to wonder why Hun Sen seemed so agitated by the dispute last year in the first instance, and why he would risk enflaming tensions again by holding drills so close to the border.

The dispute remains a political tool for Hun Sen

The dispute has arguably been used by Hun Sen as part of a wider strategy to promote his image as the sole capable protector of his country’s national security and territorial sovereignty ahead of upcoming elections. It should not be overlooked that the escalation came in a year when Hun Sen also cracked down on alleged internal ‘threats’ by arresting political opponents on contentious treason charges, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of critical independent media outlets such as the Cambodia Daily. The minor border incursion by Laos was presented as another – this time external – ‘threat’ which only the prime minister was said to be capable of responding to. This portrayal was visible through Hun Sen’s claim that the dispute would be ‘‘hard to resolve’’ if it were not for his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Lao politicians, in addition to February’s exercise carried-out by a battalion created by the PM just days after last August’s flare-up.

The August 2017 border flare-up was defused almost as quickly as it began, after Hun Sen met his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane (Image Source: Russian Govt)

To secure enough votes from the public to guarantee an extension of his 33-years in power, Hun Sen appears keen to play the nationalist card and remind voters of internal and external ‘threats’ which he says pose a danger to the once-troubled country. The PM has often used alarmist rhetoric before elections by warning voters of a descent back into civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is not re-elected. Laos represents by far the easiest external target to aim at for Hun Sen to boost his ‘strongman’ credentials, with its army being significantly smaller and weaker than Cambodia’s other two neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which also have outstanding border issues with Cambodia.

Yet despite the alarm sparked by Hun Sen’s ultimatum last August and the recent military drills, the dispute itself remains low-key and unlikely to escalate or lead to armed conflict any time soon. The border area is remote and sparsely populated, making it geopolitically neutral in relative terms and therefore unlikely to ignite into violence. While the dispute causes few problems on the ground and poses little impediment to bilateral relations, emerging tensions over the trade in natural resources and the proposed construction of dams further upstream could make it more significant in the future.

To avoid such a scenario and prevent the area becoming a flashpoint in decades to come, both sides must take the present opportunity to resolve the dispute and demarcate the final unmarked stretches of the border. Little progress has been made since last year’s vow from both nations to look again at the issue, and achieving meaningful progress will require enhanced political determination. Yet while the dispute remains in the background as a convenient political tool for Hun Sen to draw attention to as elections draw closer, there is even less of an incentive for politicians to push for a faster resolution.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.